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Reflections of a Lifelong Shooter Fan

If the military shooter could speak, it likely would say, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Still there is no denying that the shooter genre en masse has stagnated, especially to judge by the glut of armchair prognosticators clogging the Blogosphere with their dire pronouncements.

I’m not immune to the creeping ambivalence that modern shooters appear to elicit in even the most fervent admirers. A lifelong devotee of the crosshair, I share the concerns of other gamers about the future of this seemingly moribund genre. However, rather than just complain, there are opportunities worth exploring.

The best way I can think to do that is by ruminating on my own experience with the genre that is closest to my heart. Since the arcade shooter Tempest I’ve been enamored with the control and precision, the destruction, the immediate gratification, the thrill and challenge of the gameplay.

The same likely could be said of other genres like fighting games so it’s tough to distill exactly what separates shooters. One could argue it mines the hunter instinct in our species, the need and desire to choose, stalk and kill prey from a distance with deadly commitment and proficiency.

There are some who would hold that such behavior is less instinct then learned role, however, to see children, especially boys, so early and eagerly take up the sword or gun in imaginary war games should give anyone pause. Regardless of origin, such a role has an appeal at an early age.

That helps explain my childhood interest in titles like Combat and Air/Sea Battle. Those Atari 2600 games were among my favorites despite vehicles that better resembled rudimentary Lego blocks then their real world counterparts. Indeed the simple point and shoot gameplay was the real draw.

This fundamental gameplay mechanic has never changed. It is the basis for the colossal success of this genre. What has changed, instead, is the context in which it happens. Whether first- or third-person, side-scrolling, military, air- or car-combat, arcade, squad-based tactical, or role-playing game hybrid shooter, there is a wide variation.

Of course this distinction is lost on everyone but genre adherents. Why? The core mechanics are common to all shooters. Thankfully, such games have grown in complexity both in relation to expanded gameplay elements as well as the scenarios that form the basis for their narratives.

Sony’s Playstation reignited my passion for the genre with games like Ace Combat, Codename: Tenka, Colony Wars, Disruptor, Future Cop: LAPD, G-Police, MDK and Medal of Honor; even non-genre titles like Resident Evil, Tomb Raider and Syphon Filter contributed solid shooting elements. But it was their diversity that kept things interesting.

The cooperative and competitive elements that helped define the next generation of consoles likewise varied gameplay. Offline or on, series like SOCOM, Halo, Rainbow Six and Grand Theft Auto left their indelible mark on the shooter genre. While I couldn’t play online, I did embrace squad combat.

Our current generation benefits from the collective wisdom of successful game design up till now. Call of Duty, Battlefield and Halo are examples of winning formulas forged in the crucible of retailing, marketing and advertising. Game production has become more of a science than an art.

And at least initially this was an acceptable situation. This generation I first went online and played GTA IV, Battlefield: Bad Company, Call of Duty: World at War and Modern Warfare 2, and Killzone 2 incessantly, reaching the top rank in each of the latter four titles. I even finished the campaigns of BFBC and CoD: MW2.

Of course, game design has always been a business bent on moving product just like any other industry. However, one could argue that it has now become a victim of its own success. In much the same way that Star Wars ushered in an era of mass produced blockbusters and franchise filmmaking, Halo (and later, CoD) helped make video games big business.

Today we’re seemingly inundated with assembly line sequels that sacrifice innovation for formulaic gameplay and derivative narrative. The emphasis now is not on variety or creativity, but on retracing a lucrative path toward financial success. And that threatens to strip away the varied contexts for the otherwise similar core gameplay elements.

In each successive title in the aforementioned series, I’ve committed less and less time to both the online and offline modes. In Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops, I ranked up to about 25, I think, but I’ve barely played Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or Killzone 3.

Where I used to see a wide range of scenarios in my beloved genre, I now see mostly the same basic gameplay mechanics that non-genre fans have seen. Games have become stripped of what used to differentiate them more clearly to the point that even settings and stories risk blurring the lines of distinction.

Actually there is precedent in what happened with the once highly touted Medal of Honor franchise. Its unbridled success meant a procession of sequels and competitors (such as Call of Duty) that exploited the World War II shooter scenario ad nauseam. Even now, despite a relaunch, the series is still working to overcome that stigma.

Ironically, it is using a similar formula to the one that has become cliché among modern shooters, that is, the globe trotting special forces unit sent to today’s international hot spots to stave off mass destruction. Whether online or off, this scenario has grown increasingly ripe on the vine.

This dilemma is most pronounced among military shooters, though the genre in general likewise faces a crisis of content, with production companies and their developers attempting to follow successful formulas all the way to the bank.

An example is the post apocalyptic scenario popular in series like Fallout or titles like Borderlands or Rage, though all meet with varying levels of success. Indeed, RPG/shooter hybrids like Fallout, Borderlands or Mass Effect suggest a possible alternative to otherwise staid genre gameplay.

Likewise, other titles have successfully incorporated shooting elements in gameplay that is less conducive to genre labels. Tomb Raider and Uncharted wed platforming with ranged attacks, whereas BioShock, infamous and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed use powers either as projectile weapons or in tandem with guns.

Indeed, I’ve found that RPGs are replacing shooters as my games of choice, especially as more these days rely on real time combat instead of turn based fighting. The fact that many such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Two Worlds II and Kingdoms of Amalur implement quick and intuitive ranged attacks helps.

My point in discussing such titles outside the genre is to identify potential opportunities for gameplay innovation among the kinds of games more commonly considered shooters. Consider, for instance, how genre series Just Cause and Saints Row have carved their own niche with RPG inspired free roam, open world gameplay.

While my time spent playing online competitive multiplayer stalwarts has dwindled significantly, I’ve surprised myself by spending dozens of hours each in Just Cause 2 and Saints Row 3. I imagine that the level of freedom they afford, as well as the variety of gameplay in such sandboxes, appeals to me in the same way that fantasy RPGs do.

All of which makes me wonder what can be done to restore the flagging fortunes of this genre. Now, I have no doubt that better minds then I will eventually help infuse shooters with more originality, but in the meantime the seeming dearth of viable alternatives to formulaic gameplay leaves a considerable void.

In this context I’m compelled to think about the features that differentiate shooters I currently enjoy, as well as the elements of favorite nongenre titles that might help augment the standard shooter experience. I did explore aspects of this concept before but the opportunity to expand on it given recent experiences warranted a revisit of the topic.

As more gamers still play offline, I’ll explore that mode first. Modern Warfare 2 is the best example, for me, of what is wrong with modern shooters. Infinity Ward clearly rested on its laurels by rehashing a similar scenario replete with Slavic foe, a first person execution, WMD and climactic fight.

I’ll go further and suggest its predecessor wasn’t as impressive either. It was very good, but the scenes meant to wring emotion out of gamers lacked serious punch, mainly because the developers failed to establish an emotional bond with the characters to begin with.

This is a fatal flaw of shooters today, which eschew traditional storytelling elements like character development for more numerous and impressive set pieces and scripted moments. The problem is that these aren’t nearly as inspiring as they would be if we actually cared about the characters.

Developers have tried to artificially boost the emotion quotient by either including controversial moments (No Russian) or familiar settings (Resistance 2, Modern Warfare 2, Homefront) but such theatrics fail by definition because the characters are two-dimensional.

The popular premise of globe-trotting special forces likewise undermines character development. Battlefield: Bad Company is one of the few modern shooters in my opinion to generate any sympathy for its characters, a ragtag band of comrades whose wise cracking banter and frank discussions emphasize their common bonds.

Sometimes developers will focus on a central Everyman character and this can foster a measure of empathy but it’s still an isolated and lonely path that does not engender sympathy in other characters. It’s better than relatively anonymous black ops or special forces but not an ideal scenario.

I prefer group dynamics for developing a strong narrative and character arcs. People don’t exist in a vacuum and it’s easier to relate to someone and demonstrate growth in the context of someone’s relationship to other people. But for it to work there has to be a commitment to story.

I think there are plenty of scenarios outside a special forces/black ops mission structure to explore these kinds of group dynamics. The ideal could be a group of ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances such as invasion, oppression, civil strife, anarchy, etc. That doesn’t have to mean frying pans and slingshots, as they can be militia.

They could be family or friends struggling to survive together or strangers with a common bond whether neighborhood, nation or ideal. The challenge is in exploring those bonds from beginning to end, how they grow, fray, cement or splinter. Likewise how the group reacts to others adds another layer of complexity and depth.

Some games get this right, like Mass Effect, where you meet and develop friendships and even romance with other crewmembers, as well as deal with their loss at times along the way. The temptation might be to exploit plot twists as an end in and of themselves, but when done with sensitivity and as a means to an end, they respect the story and the gamer.

As an example, let me spoil a favorite last gen Playstation 2 game, Cold Winter. The tale builds a backstory of fidelity between its playable leads, only to have one executed later in the game. This tragic espionage thriller stays true to form as your discovery of the central conspiracy leads to a somber denouement of just retribution.

By focusing on its characters, as well as developing a convincing and sober story of idealism gone awry, gamers are treated to a mature and powerful tale that elevates both the genre and the medium. BioShock is another good example, though your independent character begins as more of a tabula rasa (proving that such a scenario likewise can work).

Cooperative gameplay offers an opportunity to explore with friends either the same scenario or an alternate campaign. Of course co-op does not have to follow this format, for instance, it could involve a survival mode or separate missions structure. Such options would be appreciated, but campaigns can expand on the story if done right.

Whether one plays as the same characters or a different set, gameplay can involve a subplot to the main story. Take The Darkness II, whose too brief co-op campaign impresses with its premise of hoods helping main character Jackie Estacado and his organization with its mission.

Frankly in this case the story is not so well developed to truly deepen the experience, however, it provides a nice context for what does transpire in the co-op campaign. Ensuring that competitive multiplayer can have a similar impact of course is more challenging.

Gamers clearly enjoy standard modes such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Domination, etc. However, there have been grumblings among the faithful about the repetition of such matches and their lack of ingenuity of late. Even other modes like Rush and Conquest in the Battlefield series can frustrate with its familiar gameplay.

Some titles have managed to innovate with their approach to multiplayer. CoD’s Killstreaks helped reinvent online competition by rewarding individual prowess with deadly measures, while Homefront’s Battle Points system delivered weapons, tools or vehicles for productive team-based gameplay.

But too often the fundamental structure of online competition adheres to time tested parameters, including the widespread implementation of one-time innovations like those mentioned above. What’s needed is the cliché suggestion to think outside the box, in this case, the virtual sandbox.

Most matches regardless of mode take place on a confined stage, limiting one’s options whether objectives or gameplay. Series like Resistance and Killzone have worked around these restrictions by implementing a rotation of successive gameplay modes during a single match. This helps keep the same match fresh despite playing on the same map.

To take such notions a step further, consider an open world design of the kind found in RPGs or even shooters like Just Cause and Saints Row. By their nature they allow for more objectives and environments to ensure a variety of gameplay outside the normal static options typically available.

MAG attempted this format, however, in my limited experience in the private beta the game succeeded or failed based on the strength of your team. Poor teams meant an unrelenting slog whereas quality teams advanced quickly. Part of the problem was how each team was funneled through the map and how each mode only had respective objectives.

A truly open world format with wide ranging objectives would enable gamers to approach each scenario as they saw fit and even play to their strengths based on chosen character classes that are indicative of any individual gamer’s play style. This forms the basis for online gameplay, however, the premise is equally important.

Many games in fact follow the formula of using the same or similar settings, characters and weapons or tools in order to establish a consistent world across different game modes. Indeed I think that the overall mission (as in the campaign) would involve resistance, rebellion, conquest, survival, etc., and each objective would contribute to that end.

Combatants would select a default character class that conforms to their gaming style, i.e. assault, engineer, recon and medic (I find these standard choices effective), though each could be customized. For instance, categories like assault rifles, repair tools, sniper rifles and med kits would be immutable for their respective class, but most other items could be interchanged.

Once created, you choose or are chosen for one of two or more opposing forces. Your assembled team would deploy to your force’s bases prior to choosing any of various objectives highlighted on your map. Each objective might involve more than one task but represent a single control point. Completing the majority of tasks would secure temporary control.

Points are scored based on team actions (defending, healing, reviving, supplying, etc.), tasks completed, objectives completed and final team and force rank. Matches would be timed, with the highest scoring force winning, or could end if one force controls, say, 80% of the map.

Set objectives would appear at the beginning of the match and their completion could impact gameplay. Securing areas could open forward respawn locations. Repairing radars could give your team added intel. Fixing communications equipment could enable supply drops. Securing certain roads might open alternate routes or establish roadblocks against the enemy. Controlling tall structures or hilltops might also improve intel.

Acquiring territory would trigger more game modes. Intel might help select enemy structures for demolition, headquarters for control, or data for theft (and return to your base). Likewise, damaging enemy radar or communications equipment can disrupt their intel and supply drops, respectively, like destroying roadblocks will open routes or securing enemy territory will eliminate respawn points.

When opposing forces are in close proximity, still more game modes will come into play. Both sides might trigger certain arenas that have to be cleared of enemy forces to gain control. Likewise, your team might receive intel of a high profile target among enemy team members that must be assassinated, while they must defend the target against elimination.

Such objectives do mirror standard and nonstandard competitive multiplayer game modes, but hopefully in a more varied, dynamic and organic way that is more conducive to a combat scenario while also offering more choice, opportunity and entertainment for online shooter fans.

Clearly standard competitive multiplayer game modes are still immensely popular. To that end, individual maps taken from this open world setting as well as select game modes based on the objectives could be available for custom online play. Lobbies would allow a selection of games, not to mention an option for hardcore games with no radar, respawns, etc.

Also, nonscoring matches with bots would allow training or casual play for individual or private parties. Indeed, private party and clan play would have to be fully implemented. One can only hope that matchmaking, a bane of online gaming, would be optimized to allow for balanced matches (no more matching my level 1 Modern Warfare 3 soldier with level 60 opponents).

Also important for encouraging persistent online play is rank and upgrades. So long as scoring allows for regular, achievable increases in rank and unlocks related perks such as new weapons, tools, armor or mods of all three, then the sense of reward will help ensure continued play. However, this is not always the case.

An additional element could inspire more commitment to both online and offline play. Online perks such as skins, uniforms, insignia, weapons, tools, etc., could be awarded for completion of offline missions and even challenges related to weapon use, combat, etc. Likewise, offline perks such as unique side missions, in-game weapons or tools, concept art, etc., could be awarded for numbers of successful online objectives or challenges met.

If these kinds of suggestions could be taken into consideration, or developers otherwise reinvent the genre, my waning interest in shooters might be reversed. Until then, I might be content to play the occasional campaign mission or online match but the freedom and gameplay variety afforded by free roam shooters or other genres likely will keep me preoccupied the most.

It is not with spite that I write this, but with love and a growing sense of loss. I fondly remember the anticipation and excitement of playing shooters not so long ago. But whether a simple change in my interests or a lack of change in the genre or both, those feelings seem more distant everyday. It is my fervent wish that by chance or by design, they will return to me and others who face a similar predicament.

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